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The NFL rocks on

In an unprompted bit of machismo last week, John Bogusz declared that more people will watch Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast than ever before.

“Our game is going to do a record number,” he said.

Well, who can blame him? 

The CBS Sports ad sales chief had seen the staggering viewership numbers from the NFL’s conference championship games just days earlier, which reached levels not seen in nearly three decades.

The NFC Championship (57.9 million viewers) and AFC Championship (46.9 million viewers) games averaged 52.9 million viewers, the league’s most since 1982. 

Yes, that’s 1982, when only three broadcast networks ruled the television landscape and ESPN was not even three years old.

The numbers are remarkable in that they stand in stark contrast to the decades-old digital media trend where more television and broadband video choices cause more fragmented audiences and lower viewer numbers.

The Saints-Vikings NFC Championship Game drew
a staggering 57.9 million viewers.

The ratings also reinforce the NFL’s reputation as the country’s strongest sports entity and television property.

By far.

“It’s the best thing on TV,” said Tom McGovern, managing director of Optimum Sports. “The NFL obviously has been successful in reaching a broader audience.”

League ratings and viewership grew for all five of its network partners during the regular season and have grown even further in the playoffs.

The numbers are the talk of the industry, representing a trend that has defied conventional wisdom and bucked all traditional thought.

Networks have long believed that good ratings are dependent on close games. But three of the four wild card games were decided by more than 10 points and three of the four divisional playoff games were decided by more than 17 points. Those eight games averaged 31.4 million viewers, the highest level since the mid-1990s, when the Internet was in its infancy.

TV executives also follow the credo that big markets drive big ratings. But three of the four championship teams came from markets that were nowhere near the top 10 in the country, and ratings reached levels not seen since Joe Montana was a young quarterback for the 49ers.

So why are these playoff ratings up so much this year?

The Three Most-Viewed Super Bowls In History
YR SB NET RAT VIEWERS (000) MATCHUP
2009 XLIII NBC 42.0 98,732 Steelers-Cardinals
2008 XLII Fox 43.1 97,448 Giants-Patriots
1996 XXX NBC 46.0 94,080 Cowboys-Steelers

Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint an exact reason.

Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said the NFL’s viewership numbers this year are a result of years of rules tinkering by the league to make its game more appealing.

“I don’t know of any sport in the world that spends so much time examining all options to make its game better,” Hill said. “The NFL is unbelievably adept at adding things to make the game better and eradicating things that fans don’t enjoy so much.”

When pressed on why the numbers are so much higher this postseason, Hill said it essentially comes down to story lines. The league has been filled with them this year, from quarterback Brett Favre playing in Minnesota to the hurricane-ravaged New Orleans market finding on-field success.

“I don’t think there’s any hidden psychological or socioeconomic reason for the increase,” Hill said.

CBS’s Bogusz also suggested that the postseason story lines are keeping viewers tuned in. “I think that it’s attracted people,” he said.

Stephen Master, vice president at Nielsen Sports, said the playoff ratings mark a continuation of a seasonlong trend of higher ratings. “There’s such a high level of engagement invested in the season already,” said Master, who sold sponsorships at the NFL until early last year.

Nielsen has not been able to provide conclusive evidence that the poor economy is keeping people at home, driving up ratings. “In good times and bad, people are still tuning in,” Master said.

Nor could the company find conclusive evidence that the popularity of HDTV sets is contributing to the big numbers.

But longtime sports media consultant Neal Pilson pointed to the economy and technology as a reason for the increase. “NFL numbers are up all season due in part to the recession and people staying home to watch sports on their new HD sets,” he said. But he felt the ratings are “no surprise” given the strong regular-season ratings. 

“Great story lines into the playoffs with [Peyton] Manning, Favre, New Orleans and the Jets,” he said.  “I expect a good Super Bowl rating as well if the game is close — perhaps a 43.5.”

A rating north of a 43 would top the stellar ratings for the last two Super Bowls, which also set viewership records.

The consensus view is that the NFL is a TV ratings juggernaut and nobody would be surprised if viewership numbers continue to be broken.

“The NFL continues to defy predictability as far as what a lock it has on American culture,” said David Baxter, president of Adidas’ sports licensed division.

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